The tribes of Ghana developed a wide range of distinctive modes of dress that became traditional expressions of their cultural identity. Costume designs were influenced by available materials and existing craft skills as well as by external influences such as the influx of Islam and Arabic culture in the northern regions. However, the great diversity of style did not extend to footwear. This was possibly due to the privilege of wearing shoes on an everyday basis being accorded to chiefs and fetish high priests, and the tendency for most ordinary people to go barefoot.
In the Ashanti Empire, the foot of the king, the Asantehene, was not allowed to touch the ground. Consequently, the king was provided with large leather sandals with a single toe thong, similar to the now popular rubber beach sandal, but made with a stiff leather sole. The sole was significantly larger than the king’s foot, perhaps to magnify his stature or to guarantee his immunity from contact with the ground. The sandals were painted black but the top cover strip was often made of the same brightly coloured Kente woven fabric that made up the king’s toga-like body cloth.
Not only in Ashanti, but also in the northern regions, it was a chief’s privilege to wear shoes. The northern chiefs were also privileged to ride horses and so their footwear evolved into elegant soft leather riding boots. These, like the Ashanti sandals, would not have been practical everyday wear and too expensive for most people to afford, so again most of the chief’s subjects went barefoot. Europeans introducing soccer to West Africa in colonial times were astonished to find the game played barefoot. No doubt decades of farming in bare feet had induced this hardiness.
Ashanti chief’s sandals are still made by local cobblers and sold to tourists with tender feet. Purchasers find that the sandals might be suitable for hours of sitting in council on a royal stool, but for walking about on everyday business they are very uncomfortable, on account of the rigid sole and the abrasion of the rough leather thong between the toes. This might explain why, apart from the high cost, most of the kings subjects who had active duties to perform, chose to go barefoot. However, when modern versions of the sandal became available made in soft rubber, they became very popular and widely worn. They were given a local name, ‘Kyale wate,’ to describe the flip-flop noise that they make when the wearer is walking.
There was a time when wayside artisans produced sandals from old vehicle tyres. These were almost as uncomfortable as the original chief’s sandal and they went out of fashion when the soft rubber version was mass produced in Ghana at an affordable price. The rubber sandal is cheap, cool and comfortable enough that it has prevented the local market being swamped by used goods from overseas, as has happened with the clothes market and its ‘oboroni wawu,’ the white man has died. Used shoes, as well as new ones, are still imported into Ghana, but the most common footwear, especially in the rural areas, is still modelled on the traditional Ashanti sandal.